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Reviewed by:
  • Imaginary States: Studies in Cultural Transnationalism
  • Courtney Helgoe (bio)
Imaginary States: Studies in Cultural Transnationalism by Peter HitchcockUniversity of Illinois Press, 2003

Judging from the spectral content of Peter Hitchcock's energetic study of globalization, Imaginary States: Studies in Cultural Transnationalism, he is a thinker who likes a challenge. Not only does he employ a vast array of cultural products in his analysis, from poetry to shoes to coffee, the centrality of "imagination" for his thesis places him in dangerous territory, especially in cultural criticism. Many critics have taken their licks from historical materialism and, as a result, use the word with great hesitation, even derision, as if to consider the power of thought from this vantage point is to admit a hopeless idealism. Given the ugly state of the culture industry, where our creativity is being routinely sold back to us in advertisements for personal computers, for imagination, things aren't exactly looking up.

Thus, from the outset, Hitchcock takes a risk. His project engages a historical materialist perspective at the same time as it asserts the importance of art and the imagination as critical agents for rethinking the nation and the transnational in the era of globalization. Relying heavily on Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the dialogic, Hitchcock arranges his argument as an interchange between various discourses that exemplify the transnational state. The first section analyzes literature defined as postcolonial; the second examines the discourse of global capitalism by reading two key commodities—shoes and coffee—as Bakhtinian "chronotopes," a term Bakhtin defines as "an optic for reading texts as x-rays of the forces at work in the culture system from which they spring."1 This wide range of transnational texts provides Hitchcock the opportunity to examine the potentials of a state [End Page 209] (he employs the word in its broadest sense) that is freed from the prefix of the nation. For him, the imaginary state is the site of possibility for "thinking difference differently," without nation-state xenophobia or the pernicious homogenization of global capitalism. In his commitment to the creative excess of both art and commodities, Hitchcock does not deny the historical-materialist imperative that physical forms dictate intellectual ones, but instead seeks where, within current material conditions, imagination can be witnessed in the act of generating "alternative forms of socialization" (152).

Clearly, the scope of the project is vast, and its persuasiveness occasionally wobbles under the weight of its ambition. Hitchcock addresses the work of Edouard Glissant, Kamau Brathwaite, and Maryse Conde in the first three chapters, framing their writing in the geography and history of the Caribbean. The fragmentary archipelago, steeped in a history of forced immigration, is a site where language is always already heterogeneous, with Creole and pidgin having developed through the traumatic contact between colonizing and native languages. Ardent nationalism does not come easily to such a place, and Hitchcock employs this fragmentary history to illustrate what is necessarily transnational about its imaginary space. He examines the metaphor of "crossing" in Conde as exemplary of a dynamic feature of Caribbean-ness that is linked to the Middle Passage (the route taken by slave ships between Africa and the archipelago) as well as the transversal between islands, offering "Caribbean-ness" as a mode of being that maintains its singularity without succumbing to static conceptions of national identity. In a similar move, he reads the opacity of language in Glissant's work not as the elitism of the émigré who coyly creolizes his French, but as a specific strategy of resistance to identification by colonizing forces. He also links this opacity to Glissant's use of the plural subject position, "le nous" as opposed to "je," the all-important collective first-person pronoun that "strives . . . not to idealize a community, but to imagine, in all its complexity, why that community has not been" (41).

Hitchcock's willingness to engage the fruitful paradoxes implicit in these works is admirable and provides an energy and urgency that is missing from many such literary readings, which collapse under their strain for precision. But there are problems when such promising questions (such as "Why has the community not been?") are left [End Page...


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pp. 209-212
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